5 challenges facing Lisa Roy, Colorado’s new early childhood chief

The new executive director of the Colorado Department of Early Childhood talks about her plans for the new state agency and universal preschool program.

A woman with curly brown hair smiles for a portrait, standing on a balcony with the Colorado State Capitol behind her.
Lisa Roy started as executive director of Colorado’s Department of Early Childhood on May 16. (Ann Schimke / Chalkbeat)

As chief of Colorado’s new early childhood department, Lisa Roy will shape a new state agency with more than 300 employees and lead the biggest expansion of state-funded preschool in program history.

Roy, 58, recently returned to Colorado after spending more than two years in Omaha, Nebraska, as director of program development at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. She started as the early childhood department’s executive director on May 16 with an annual salary of $165,000. 

During a recent interview in a temporary office a block from the gold-domed state Capitol, Roy talked about her own experience with the early childhood system — first as a parent and later as a policymaker.

“I have that experience as a parent of not being able to afford childcare,” she said. “My kids were Head Start kids.” 

Roy, who has three adult children, said she initially applied for state child care subsidies, but her ex-husband made $5 over the limit so she didn’t qualify. 

She later helped set child care subsidy rules as part of Denver’s welfare reform board, worked on a preschool tuition assistance program funded with a city sales tax, and led Denver Public Schools early education department from 2016 to 2019. She’s also held leadership positions in several philanthropic organizations.

“I have experienced almost every single facet of what our department will do,” said Roy, who has a doctorate in leadership for educational equity from the University of Colorado Denver. 

The state’s early childhood department technically started March 1, but many of its operations start July 1. The department will oversee more than a dozen early childhood programs now housed in the state’s Department of Human Services and the Department of Education. It also will manage the new universal preschool program, an ambitious effort to provide tuition-free preschool to 4-year-olds statewide starting in the fall of 2023. 

Roy, who is a member of Gov. Jared Polis’ cabinet, talked to Chalkbeat about some of the most pressing issues she’ll face in the coming year.

New hires for a new department

Roy has spent much of her first six weeks on the job reconnecting with early childhood leaders and advocates around the state, and working to hire top staff. Her deputy is Mary Alice Cohen, who was director of the state’s Office of Early Childhood, the smaller precursor to the new department. 

Tova Cohen — no relation to Mary Alice Cohen — is the early childhood agency’s director of marketing and communications and Naomi Gonzales is the people operations and human resources director. Recruiting is underway for other senior roles, including business product director, chief financial officer, and universal preschool program director. 

Roy and her executive team will be responsible for building out much of the new department’s infrastructure, in terms of staff, organizational structures, and advisory groups tasked with providing input on policy decisions.

Boosting provider pay

State programs that help Colorado families cover preschool and child care costs generally pay much less to providers than they need to run high-quality programs. That means teachers often shoulder the shortfall through low wages. 

Roy said the current reimbursement model doesn’t work and needs an overhaul to more accurately reflect providers’ true costs.

“Our goal is to … what I would call stop the madness of how we calculate the cost of care.” she said. “If we do that, that’ll get us much closer to paying a living wage.”

The recently passed universal preschool law also calls for a per-pupil rate that ensures workers make a living wage, but no specifics are spelled out. Roy said the department will convene a compensation task force in the next few months to work on the issue. 

Building the “one-stop shop”

Roy said the department plans to unveil the universal preschool application for families in early January. That’s about six months before universal preschool classrooms open. 

Initially, the application will be only for the state preschool program. It won’t determine a family’s eligibility for other early childhood programs, such as child care subsidies, as lawmakers and other leaders originally envisioned when they proposed the idea of a “one-stop shop” that spares parents from filling out lots of applications at multiple agencies. 

That single unified application is bound to be a major technological lift for the state since different early childhood programs have different funding sources and eligibility criteria. 

After the universal preschool application launches, Roy said, “the vendor will move on to building the one-stop-shop for families to apply for services delivered by the [early childhood] department and elsewhere.” 

Making (lots of) rules

A controversial part of Colorado’s new law on the early childhood agency and universal preschool program gives the department’s executive director — not a board — final rule-making authority. 

That means Roy will sign off on lots of new rules in the coming year, including what criteria preschool providers must meet, how preschool funding will work, and which children will be eligible for more than 10 hours a week of preschool because they have high needs. 

A 15-member Rules Advisory Committee will advise Roy, but its recommendations won’t be binding. Critics of the rule-making provision, which aims to make the department nimble, worry it puts a lot of power in one person’s hands. 

Roy said of her rule-making authority, “It is exciting to have the freedom to be responsive.”

But she also described herself as a collaborative person willing to listen to different perspectives. Tova Cohen said Roy will appoint the 15 advisory committee members in the coming weeks. 

Defining high-quality preschool

Colorado leaders have emphasized that the new universal preschool program will provide high-quality programming but it’s not clear how participating providers will reach that bar. The state will set those requirements — on things like class size, curriculum, and teacher credentials — through the state’s rule-making process. 

Roy wants to ensure that preschool providers get the money and support they need to improve their quality. 

“The whole point is not to be punitive,” she said. “The point is: Hey, if you increase in this area, you’ll have a higher rating, and we can help you to do that … I think that that’s the win-win.”

Colorado currently has a 5-level quality rating system for child care and preschool providers. The lowest level — Level 1 — indicates a provider is licensed, meaning they meet basic health and safety standards. Level 3, 4 and 5 providers are considered high quality. While all universal preschool providers will have to be licensed, it’s not clear what other standards they’ll have to meet.

Roy said providers will be able to take a phased approach to making improvements. The state has $39 million set aside to help providers pay for items like furniture, equipment, and technology, she said.

“Providers are going to be at different levels, but we’re going to support them where they are and help them to raise their level of quality,” she said. “And even if they are a ‘five-star,’ maintaining that is important.”

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

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